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Isabel Allende. Photo submitted.

Originally published: 2013-11-21 17:21:39
Last modified: 2013-11-21 19:58:03

Author pens letter on book challenge

Author Isabel Allende is the latest to share her opinion on the ongoing challenge in Watauga County Schools to her novel, "The House of the Spirits."

Naturally, she approves of the work.

In a letter dated Nov. 4, the Chilean-American author wrote to Board of Education members about being placed in the "unusual and awkward position of having to 'defend' my novel."

The 1982 work is the subject of a book challenge from parent Chastity Lesesne, who objected to the novel's inclusion in Mary Kent Whitaker's sophomore honors English class.

Lesesne called the book "graphic" and "immoral" due to its frequent descriptions of sex and violence, and other parents have agreed.

But Whitaker and others have argued that the novel properly challenges honors students despite its adult themes. It is included in the state's recommended works for 10th graders as part of the Common Core curriculum.

On Oct. 25, the Watauga High School Media and Technology Advisory Committee voted to uphold the use of the book.

The Board of Education then selected five people for a review committee to hear Lesesne's appeal -- interim Superintendent David Fonseca, WHS math teacher Klay Anderson, Hardin Park media specialist Amy Hiatt, Blowing Rock Principal Patrick Sukow and community representative Dr. Clint Zimmerman.

The committee met for the first time Wednesday night and plans to meet again Nov. 27. Lesesne and Whitaker will be invited to speak at the next meeting, said schools spokesman Marshall Ashcraft.

If Lesesne is unsatisfied with the review committee's eventual decision, she could appeal to the Board of Education for a final ruling.

Parents, students, teachers and county commissioners have shared their opinions about the book as the challenge has progressed, but no speaker has been as high-profile as the author herself.

In the letter, Allende reviewed her extensive resume, which includes 20 books translated into 35 languages selling more than 60 million copies. She also holds 14 honorary degrees and has won numerous awards for her first novel since it was published in 1982, she said.

She spoke out against the current situation in Watauga County Schools after being contacted by "an appalled teacher who cares deeply for the students" and defended the novel's usefulness for students.

"Teachers like to teach it because they believe it gives the students insights into Latin American literature, history, politics, social issues and customs," Allende wrote, adding that many students write to her after reading the book. "Their comments prove that they have understood the story and they are curious to learn more. The novel seems to open their minds to other places and peoples in the world."

Allende described the situation in Watauga County as a person circulating fragments of the novel -- primarily sexual in nature and taken out of context -- among parents who "probably have not read the book."

"Since today TV series, movies, videogames and comics exploit sex and violence, including torture and rape, as forms of entertainment, I don't think that young adults will be particularly offended by the strong scenes from 'The House of the Spirits,' which are always part of the historical and political content of the novel," she wrote.

Allende states incorrectly, however, that the plan is to gather support to ban the book completely, even as optional reading. Lesesne has said that she thinks the book ought to be available as optional reading but should not be required as part of any class.

"Banning of books is a common practice in dictatorships, military and police states, religious fundamentalist governments and communist countries, but I did not expect it in our democracy," Allende wrote.

Ashcraft said Thursday he was not sure whether anyone from the school system had responded to Allende's letter.